Anne Heche was the first actress who ever fascinated me. Which, knowing what I grew up to be and the art that has fascinated me throughout my adult life, feels significant. I was ten, eleven years old at the most. My grandparents lived in the flat upstairs, and every day after school I’d go up there, Grandma would fix me a snack, and we’d watch her soaps. Grandma, like the rest of our household, was an NBC partisan, so this meant Another World, where Heche was in the midst of an Emmy-winning run playing twins Vicky and Marley Hudson. Marley was the good one, demure and sweet, costumed in tasteful beige; Vicky was the bad one, scheming and manipulative in her garish neon ensembles.
Grandma hated Vicky. Probably because she cheated on Jamie with Jake and then tried to extort the Cory publishing empire for millions. For my part, I couldn’t keep my eyes off of her. Heche played Vicky with a kind of wicked righteousness, smart enough to know better but unable to help herself from making a grab for what she knew she deserved, be it money or a man. Physically, she was like a porcelain bird, but temperamentally she was a hurricane. Before I ever knew what devotion to an actress might be, I knew I’d follow her wherever she led me.
Heche’s transition to a film career was no less thrilling to me, because I wasn’t aware soap actors could do that back then. It felt like sharing something of myself with the rest of the world. Her late ‘90s film performances are stunners on their own merits, but it was especially satisfying to see how many angles she could score from. In Walking and Talking, she and Catherine Keener’s lived-in, co-dependent friendship set the standard by which all of Nicole Holofcener’s subsequent protagonists would be measured. In Donnie Brasco, she played the cop's wife who slowly realizes she's become a mobster's wife and did it well enough that the National Board of Review gave her Best Supporting Actress of 1997.
That statuesque bone structure basically demanded leading roles, but Hollywood struggled to find the right fit for her intensity, even if misfires like Six Days, Seven Nights (a brassy onscreen stand-off with co-star Harrison Ford) and maligned efforts like the Psycho remake offered far more to chew on in defeat than many other movies have in victory.
And while I found endlessly rewatchable pleasure in watching Heche demand Tommy Lee Jones take her geological warnings seriously right before the coast was toast in Volcano, her most satisfying work came in the way she electrified the margins of films that nominally weren’t hers. In Wag the Dog, she plays a political flack pushed to her limits, eventually letting loose with an expletive-laden diatribe that reduces both Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro to mere bystanders. In Birth, she shows up two-thirds of the way into the movie and upends the entire film in a single scene. And if highbrow Nicole Kidman drama isn’t enough for you, she does the exact same thing to Jennifer Love Hewitt in I Know What You Did Last Summer.
I got to interview Anne Heche a few years ago in Toronto, a personal career highlight that I treasure dearly. She and Sandra Oh were promoting their film Catfight in tandem, and Heche’s thrill and satisfaction at getting to dig into a lead role she found prickly and satisfying was palpable. She was a live wire in the room, feet up on her seat, emphatic gestures, energetic answers. She and Oh giggled and glanced conspiratorially, intimidating, though not intended as such.
At the end of my allotted time, I knew I couldn’t leave that room without asking Anne Heche about Vicky Hudson and Another World and teller her how it felt watching her as a kid. I wasn’t un-terrified that she might scoff or snarl or worse yet not understand what the big deal was about this soap character she’d played thirty years ago. She didn’t, though. She smiled warmly at me and told me it’s the role she gets asked about most often, and one of the ones she took the most pride in.
Anne Heche died this morning at 53. She was a singular actress, and her talent was terrifyingly formidable. She was the steel that sharpened steel in the ensembles she joined. Her voice cut through the clutter. She was the surprise around the corner. Few actresses in her generation could match her, and while I can’t speak with any real knowledge of her demons and her struggles, I’ll lament them if they kept her from getting the respect she deserved as an artist. As a screen presence, she meant the world to me, and I’ll be forever grateful for the spark she lit in me.
Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.